spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Exposing the Myths

Matt Auer

Matt Auer Hurricane Katrina generated some myths and helped kill others. Among those generated was a myth specific to Katrina itself—the storm hit Monday, but the levees gave way Tuesday. In fact, at least two and perhaps three key sections of the levee system failed on Monday. But the “they broke Tuesday” myth gave cover to journalists (and politicians) who missed the scoop in the Lower Ninth Ward and in parishes east of New Orleans proper. 

There is no doubt that problems worsened Tuesday, helping to dispel at least one myth about storms and floods. We are often led to believe that the risk of catastrophic flooding is highest during a major storm event itself. In fact, peak discharge often occurs after the main storm event as overland flow and subsurface drainage makes its way to already-swollen streams and rivers. We should have learned this lesson during the disastrous Ohio River Valley flood of 1997. Immediately after the rain ceased, homeowners in the flood plain breathed sighs of premature relief with not a drop of floodwater in sight. That changed dramatically over the next 48 hours. The ’97 flood took 67 lives and caused over $1 billion in damage.

  Katrina exposed, under the harshest light, another popular myth—that FEMA is something akin to the cavalry. We are led to believe by FEMA’s own public relations efforts that the agency is a giant stable of first responders—action figures in neon orange life vests, blankets perched on one shoulder, bottled water on the other, waiting like sprinters in the blocks. FEMA officials are not first responders, nor are they deployable in large numbers, nor are they resource-rich. They help coordinate disaster assistance and their success is absolutely dependent on the technical and organizational wherewithal of genuine state and local emergency managers and first responders. Most FEMA officials are insurance claims specialists. They prepare and file paperwork for property loss claims and subsidize emergency services. This is a far cry from the can-do FEMA of the first responder myth—but then again, even the FEMA-of-myth would have had its hands full with Katrina.

Matt Auer is a professor at SPEA, IUB. His research focuses on comparative industrial environmental politics, international forest policy, and the politics of foreign aid. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1996.